Morocco's Islamists test gains in parliamentary election

Accusations of royal meddling and creeping Islamist extremism cloud Morocco's hopes of continuing economic reform and beating corruption.

Supporters of Morocco's Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) pass out campaign leaflets in the Moroccan capital , Rabat on October 5, 2016, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election  on October 7. Fadel Senna / AFP
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MOHAMMEDIA, MOROCCO // Five years after sweeping to victory in Morocco’s elections, the prime minister’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) is facing a resurgent royal establishment.

Morocco’s second parliamentary election on Friday is testing a constitutional monarchy where an elected government works with limited powers in the shadow of a royal palace uneasy at sharing authority with popular Islamists.

After a campaign coloured by accusations of royal meddling and creeping Islamist extremism, prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s party’s main rival is the Party of Authenticity and Modernity or PAM, which critics portray as palace loyalists seeking to roll back the PJD’s influence.

Mr Benkirane has rallied support playing up the PJD’s economic reforms and its popular anti-corruption stance, hoping to extend the moderate Islamist party gains and dismissing PAM’s claims that he harbours a hidden hardline agenda.

“Some people give you 200, 300 or 500 dirhams for your vote. Don’t sell your vote. Vote for someone who will defend you,” the Islamist leader told supporters at a rally in the working-class industrial town of Mohammedia.

Whereas Tunisia, Libya and Egypt toppled long-standing rulers with uprisings five years ago that ushered Islamist parties into power, Morocco’s king eased tensions with a combination of limited reforms, higher spending and tougher security.

Morocco presents itself as a model for economic stability and gradual reform in a region where violence and instability is more the norm. Morocco’s Islamists have been standard-bearers for coexistence rather than rebellion.

Other groups, especially the Islamist Justice and Spirituality Party and left-wing organisations are more critical of the king and have boycotted elections because the king retains most powers.

But analysts said defeats for Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party and the overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood may tempt Morocco royalists to push back against PJD where the palace once ceded to Islamists as an escape value for tensions in the past.

“The regime used the PJD in 2011 to stifle the protests,” said Omar Bendorou, constitutional expert in Rabat University. “Now some think the party could be a threat if it maintains its grip on different offices.”

Mr Benkirane’s PJD-led coalition has been fiscally sound, pushing reforms in public finances. It cut the budget deficit, overhauled a cumbersome subsidy system and froze public sector jobs — all moves praised by international lenders.

Under Morocco’s election system, though, no one party can win an outright majority, forcing winners into negotiations to form coalition governments and limiting political influence.

The premier is chosen from the winning party. But the king heads a judiciary council, the security apparatus, and the council of minsters that must approve laws. Some key posts such as the interior ministry are also crown-appointed technocrats.

* Reuters